The Circular Economy: n, o, p, and q

Such a nice idea, isn’t it? That the byproducts from everything that you need are useful and valuable elsewhere within the system that sustains us all. No waste, no pollution.

No more throwing things away, because (other than a very few, very expensive space probes) humanity hasn’t yet worked out how to send things away.

So how do we turn something linear into something circular?

Natural systems manage to be (more-or-less) circular: the water cycle, for example: evaporation, condensation and precipitation, over and over for billions of years. Or fish in the sea: left to themselves, the various species of fish would fill all the different niches where we have now made them scarce, and natural levels of predation would merely make room for more fish.

Cyclic systems must work, because the natural world got along fine before Charles Darwin, Sir David Attenborough or the Common Fisheries Policy. Long before conscious study and intervention, many species were happily chalking up a span of a million years or more, with plenty of diversity.

Then along comes a species that supplemented the natural cycles with a new one. Animals had used tools before, but one animal didn’t merely make use of sticks and stones that happened to be lying around: man acquired the ability to think ahead, and to shape complex tools that couldn’t have occurred naturally.

I want to use the Acheulean handaxe to illustrate the point because this very early, very simple machine shows something fundamental about human technology: it’s not cyclic. If you were butchering a carcass with your handaxe and you broke it on a stubborn bone, or you decided that it had become too blunt, you had to get a new one. (You could, perhaps, chip another flake off to reveal a new sharp edge, but your axe would become smaller if you did this.) Thus, at the dawn of man, people were acting in more-or-less the same way as we do when we go to Phones4U and request an upgrade. This one’s no good: get a new one.

Flint hand axe

Prototype Swiss Army Knife, circa 750,000 BCE

You can’t recycle a broken flint handaxe. The Earth will do it for you via erosion and the compression of sedimentary rock, but that doesn’t happen on any sort of timescale that a mere species can take an interest in. Instead, you go and get more raw materials from out of the ground.

Interestingly, in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where handaxes were first made, the materials were ten kilometres from any settlement. Even back then, it seems we had logistics and procurement, as well as waste.

You might be tempted to dismiss this example on the grounds that we’re better than this nowadays. It’s true that the bronze age brought us tools that could be reforged, but for the vast majority of human history the stone handaxe was the only device there was, and you couldn’t remake a handaxe any more than you can turn fired pottery back into clay, or make bread out of burnt toast.

We take the raw materials we need, make our devices, wear them out, throw them away, and start again. This is called the linear economy, and we still apply it today. For a while, recycling was an option, but nowadays many modern products are a mass of different materials, not readily or economically separated.

Technology has given us all kinds of good things like dentistry, family planning and communications. Almost nobody would advocate a return to the simpler technologies of an earlier age, but many of the things that we enjoy nowadays come with an environmental price, because they are the product of a linear economy.

Our supply chains are exactly that: supply chains, not supply loops.

Heavy machinery at a landfill site

How’s recycling working out, where you live?

You can think of the single useful life that is obtained from many materials as being like an arc: it comes out of the ground, enters into a period of usefulness, ceases to be useful, and returns to the earth. It’s an ’n’ shape.

the n-shaped economy

Under the ‘n’-shaped economy, materials describe a brief arc of usefulness, before returning to the ground

The archetype for the circular economy is an ’o’ shape, which sees items or materials going round and round ad infinitum. It’s a nice idea, but it’s wholly idealised. Getting something from nothing isn’t realistic because even if you never waste anything again, the materials you depend upon came out of the ground at some point. Statistically, we all (as a citizens of planet Earth) own something like 80kg of aluminium… yet two hundred years ago, nobody had ever seen any. Recycling is essential with this costly and energy-intensive material… but it wasn’t always an option: the pump had to be primed.

The ‘o’-shaped, circular economy

The ‘o’-shaped, circular economy may be difficult to realise, with complex products

Thus, the circular economy that supersedes the ’n’ shape isn’t really an ‘o’, but more of a ‘p’. Materials must be taken out of the ground if they are to ascend into a useful cycle. 

The ‘p’-shaped economy

The ‘p’-shaped economy may be more realistic, recognising that cycles have to begin from something…

Even then, that’s not the happy ending of the story. Although your product may be more throughly sustainable, fairtrade, non-toxic, homespun, low-carbon, vegan, recycled and eco-labelled than Jeremy Corbyn’s moustache, there’s always a bit of entropy in any system. Materials wear away, or get contaminated, or mixed together in a way that changes them for good – or they get destroyed in accidents, or simply lost. If the circular economy is truly an economy, then you have to accept that people are going to buy or lease your products and take them away and use them in unanticipated ways.

The ‘q’-shaped model

The ‘q’-shaped model recognises that even though you reuse and recycle as much as possible, entropy awaits

Like zero defects or full employment, the circular economy is unattainable, but it’s a neat way to express an aspiration. In reality, it’s not an ‘o’ shape at all, but if we apply enough ingenuity we might manage a shape that looks something like “pooooq” – a shape that describes lots of useful ‘orbits’ before entropy sets in at last.

The ‘pooooq-shaped economy’

The ‘pooooq’ economy: our best-case scenario sees redesigned products being used the maximum number of times, before they eventually become unit to serve.

I once heard a guest speaker (and I wish I could remember who it was… Professor Bernard Hon, maybe?) who told us that a car’s electric window-winder mechanism was an ideal candidate for component reuse. It’s hidden away inside the door, so the Fashion Police can’t make a fuss that it isn’t the latest type. Car window winder mechanisms are reasonably durable, because of course it would reflect badly upon the brand if they failed… but how much more would it cost to make a window actuator that was designed to last through not just the life of the car, but through the life of five cars, with the unit being extracted and refitted four more times?

Twenty percent extra, our guest speaker said. But if that’s true, who pays for the current practice whereby an end-of-life vehicle gets shredded and the parts are either melted down or burnt in the name of energy recovery?

Car window actuator

Everything you ever wanted to know about automotive window actuators may be a mere click away.

We all pay. Motorists, for sure, but in fact everyone who needs commodities such as materials and energy… which means all of us.

It seems we’re barely out of the bronze age. Some people and organisations are showing that it’s possible to be ‘greener’, but many items are no more likely to be reused than a worn out Acheulean handaxe. Of course, we’re new at this: it’s only been seven thousand years since we started working with metals.

Perhaps we’ll crack this Circular Economy thing yet – and perhaps evaluating our efforts in terms of ’n’, ‘o’, ‘p’ and ‘q’ will help.


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